Lesson 2: Make the Most of What You Have

Second installment in the Sailing Lessons Series discusses the importance of creativity and invention in the effort to navigate your company through the rough seas.

In this series I explore a few good management lessons I’ve learned sailing my small boat. A small boat is like a small company. A bigger boat is like a bigger company (you get the idea). The things that make a voyage go well are similar to the things that make a company navigate its own journey well. But remember, like any voyage, there are many factors you can not control and that is really where the fun is anyway.

There are no excuses at sea. After having made every preparation you can think of, it will be your ingenuity that gets you home.

Success on a sailboat often depends on ingenuity. It is impossible to anticipate every challenge on boat under way. And it is impossible, for most of us, to afford the very best of everything on shore. A good skipper is able to improvise based on the materials at hand. In fact, ingenuity forces the leader to think about problems in new ways of is almost always the source of real insight.

Here are three good tactics to keep at hand when you face an unexpected challenge:

Number 1: Throw Shit Overboard. One of the benefits of real crisis is clarity. So many urgent demands are really nothing more than distractions from the task at hand. We are all tempted to stay busy with familiar problems; the ones we really know how to solve. But the issues for which you have the best answer is not likely to be the question in most need of answering. Sometimes the most important decision you make is what to fail at. Decide what you really-really can not afford to lose and be ready to throw the rest over board.

Number 2: Challenge Your Crew. Every single person on your team has something more to offer, you are just not focused on finding it. That is not to say that anyone can do “anything they put their mind to”. They can’t. But every one of them has more to them than you realize. Time and time again I have been amazed by team members who stepped from the sidelines to the take on a challenge.

You job as skipper is to a) identify aptitudes in your crew and b) offer the challenge. This is the key. The ones who challenge themselves are probably already fully engaged. Your job is to find untapped capacity. It is the challenge that must be offered to get to these deep reserves. Without the direct and specific challenge, it will not happen.

Number 3: Re-purpose Anything. Recall the line from the movie Apollo 13, when the command module was dying due to explosion in a fuel cell when the spacecraft was half way to the moon in April 1970. The Apollo engineers had to find a way to get the crew home. Gene Kranz says, “I don’t care what it was designed to do. I want to know what it CAN do.”

Everything you build in your company; your products, your team, your systems, your services are full capabilities that are not readily apparent to you. If you are a good skipper, you will be looking for new ways to use them. It is a habit that may save your company someday, or open up an entire new market.

Seamanship is about ingenuity and the wiliness to improvise. The clever reader will suspect they detect a contradiction here; what of the earlier advice not to skimp of critical equipment? “Are you now calling the hillbilly sloop a virtue?”, they might ask. Yes. When the alternative is failure. Using the skills and tools at hand to get the job done is good practice. A good solution now is better than the best solution never. If you can’t afford a world class CRM, use Excel and Google Docs until you can.